A relationship with a travel management company functions as the backbone of a traditional corporate travel program. TMCs go well beyond the role of booking trips. Many are doubling down on their technology investments and reworking their operations and services in an increasingly digitized world. That's a big change for some TMCs, and most aren't rebuilding platforms on their own. Instead, they partner with third parties to provide major components, and they may customize and build out some unique capabilities. TMCs also increasingly are working with startups to add value to their product offerings and services.
Travel managers—and travelers—are benefitting. There's better content flowing through the booking channels, more access to agents via messaging and chat platforms, better mobile tools and a move toward increased personalization supported by more powerful technologies.
At least as important as those highly visible features is the technology that runs behind the scenes to support modern TMC functionality and operations. While such internal systems aren't often visible to travelers or travel managers, they play a vital role in determining what a TMC can deliver. Buyers need to understand these technologies and how they are harmonized to support a great customer experience.
TMC Internal Systems & Operations
In many ways the bedrock of a TMC's internal systems are its distribution relationships. Historically, that meant alliances with global distribution systems, the computerized reservation systems through which many airlines and hotels sell their inventory of flights and rooms.
The GDS landscape has consolidated into three major providers: Sabre, Amadeus and Travelport. While these provide vital access to inventory, they're no longer the only content sources in town. The travel distribution landscape has grown much more complex, with the rise of online travel agencies like Expedia and Booking.com and aggregators like Travelfusion and Farelogix, all serving as additional sources of content.
New Distribution Capability for airlines has emerged, as well, fragmenting traditional ticket attributes like baggage, meals and boarding order and driving TMCs and travel managers to look for technologies that will pull that content together and recombine it in logical ways for their customers. GDSs, once the foes of NDC, have recognized the opportunity and are looking to provide solutions. Amadeus, Sabre and Travelport have endorsed and adopted the NDC standard and are working with airlines and TMCs to integrate NDC content. Those developments are still nascent, but buyers need to understand TMC content strategy and the technologies used to pull it together. Obvious content gaps affect traveler confidence in the program.
Traveler Profile Systems
Historically provided by and hosted within the GDS, traveler profile systems maintain key personal details and preferences for travelers. These systems have evolved significantly over the past decade, beginning with the unbundling of profiles from the GDS-hosted environment into standalone systems that enabled more robust data collection and transfer capabilities than did hosted models. Since then, some TMCs have separated from GDS-provided profile systems altogether. American Express Global Business Travel, BCD Travel and CWT maintain their own systems, as do some smaller tech-forward agencies like AmTrav and WTMC, as well as platforms like TripActions.
TMC-built profile systems offer more flexibility in how and where traveler profile data can be leveraged. Storing profile data at the TMC level rather than within the GDS layer means it can be used when making bookings outside the GDS, including direct connections to air and hotel providers and online travel agencies. BCD is set to roll out its newest TripSource Profile Manager, which the TMC said will offer more robust data, including preference information streamed through third-party providers, and finer control over traveler consent in storing and sharing data.
Buyers should watch for an intense focus on profile system innovation moving forward, as the industry looks to personalize the business travel experience while at the same time ensuring traveler privacy. Some concepts would actually remove profile systems from the TMC purview and, perhaps, place them on blockchain technology. That is a future state, but an area of interest.
TMCs automate through mid-office technology the processes that compare traveler profile data with corporate policies and enable the correct bookings to be made without human oversight. For instance, a traveler's position in the corporate hierarchy can be compared to the price of a booking to ensure the cost is within the pre-set policy limit for that level of employee. Mid-office automation offers efficiencies for other behind-the-curtain processes that otherwise would have to be performed manually, including quality control, file finishing, preparing and emailing traveler itineraries, and reshopping for lower fares and rates within the rebooking window. The latter capability has been enhanced and further automated by new technology providers like Farefly, Trappit, Tripbam and Yapta and spun off as independent services. Many buyers are satisfied with the existing mid-office reshopping function and rely on it. Another recent mid-office feature is virtual card generation for secure and controllable travel payments.
There are a handful of mid-office suppliers: larger ones like Concur Compleat and Cornerstone Information Systems and smaller providers like Troovo and Tramada. Most sell to both retail and corporate agencies and offer functions to support both environments. Some capabilities, such as airfare markups, are accepted in retail travel but conflict with corporate travel. Buyers should ask questions about markup and commissions processes in the mid-office to avoid conflicts with program objectives.
While TMCs leverage plenty of under-the-hood technologies, the tools and services with which travelers and managers directly interact are evolving, as well. Indeed, tech-driven service automation and personalization of interactions are among the most effective ways TMCs can drive higher customer satisfaction and agency productivity.
Corporate Travel Booking Tools
When it comes to technology, the corporate travel booking tool looms large. Companies have options when accessing a booking technology, including direct relationships with booking tech providers and working through an existing expense management provider, several of which have integrated travel booking capabilities. Many corporates, however, opt to obtain booking tools through their TMCs. A TMC may offer a single booking tool choice or options. While the TMC approach offers advantages, including detail-rich and joint reporting of online and offline travel bookings, buyers must ensure a booking tool is optimized for the corporate's own needs and priorities rather than those of the TMC.
Alternative Data Pathways
Data maturity is critical to travel program maturity. Organizations want to be able to look more holistically not only at what their travel expenses are and how to manage them but also at what is driving spending and the behavior of their business travelers. Travel management companies aren't the only game in town when it comes to travel program analysis, and while some have opened their platforms to digest additional data sets, most TMC reporting tools are still limited to their own. Many travel managers require a broader scope, and there are plenty of options.
When considering a travel data and intelligence strategy, data quality is a major concern. One advantage of working with specialized partners is their ability to cleanse and normalize the data. Many providers now use machine learning and natural language processing to interpret merchant names, match data and minimize duplicates. This can improve data accuracy vastly and, therefore, increase the value of the insights provided by these tools, but buyers should understand each provider's capabilities and, if possible, run sample data.
Domo, Power BI, Tableau—Many companies already use all-purpose data visualization platforms like these in their businesses. Working with internal IT departments or experienced data analysists, travel managers are leveraging these platforms to combine multiple data sources, set queries and design models to draw better insights and actionable information from their programs. Several consultancies also have used these platforms to power proprietary tools.
Prime Numbers Technology—Historically a midmarket TMC technology provider, Prime Numbers now sells direct to corporates and will incorporate credit card and expense data into its analytics tools. Its new solutions are in beta stages with select corporate clients.
Cornerstone Information Systems—Also a traditional TMC technology provider, Cornerstone offers its TravelOptix analytics tools for corporates, as well. The tool can accept any source of data, according to the company, and offers data cleansing and normalization within the tool. It also includes a presentation module that assists users in telling the data story.
DVI—Spun off from a TMC, DVI is no longer considered a TMC-driven analytics tool. It casts a wide net for data, bringing in TMC, card, expense and global distribution system data, but is extending beyond that to International Air Transport Association and STR hotel market data to enhance corporate sources and create new comparisons. DVI focuses first on data normalization and then on data modeling and analysis. It targets midmarket and larger travel programs.
PredictX—Exclusively targeting large enterprise clients with powerful travel analytics tools, PredictX incorporates machine learning and natural language processing, not only to crunch the numbers but also to serve analysis to stakeholders. For example, the company offers a new product it calls Story that goes beyond dashboards and visualizations. After the travel manager sets the queries desired for each stakeholder, the technology periodically pulls the data and literally writes a summary analysis based on the numbers. It can be set to distribute reports to designated recipients automatically. The company recently redesigned its user interface, as well.
TMC Mobile Apps
Meanwhile, the proliferation of a mobile-centric mind-set among corporate travelers has pushed TMCs to offer apps that deliver user experience and functionality akin to those on the consumer side. Mobile-first travel management challengers have pushed legacy TMCs in this area. Egencia was the first, enabling global mobile booking for hotel, car and air by 2015. Newcomers like TravelPerk and TripActions are the latest, with machine learning muscle underneath slick interfaces. Established TMCs have met this challenge with robust apps of their own, including MyCWT, Amex GBT's eponymous app, BCD's TripSource and Omega World Travel's Omega Go. TMCs are increasingly enhancing their mobile apps with artificial intelligence-driven chatbots designed to service user requests; some chatbots support mobile bookings. (See Mobile Travel App: Functionality 411 at bottom.)
Business Intelligence Tools
TMCs also are improving reporting capabilities. Advanced analytics platforms have allowed TMCs to deliver more detailed reports on travel activity and spend, to benchmark that activity against other anonymized client data and to give finer data modeling and visualization.
Aside from offering more advanced analysis and visualization of their own data, some TMCs are widening the mouth of the funnel to accept data from external sources. This adds value to what many consider to be incomplete TMC data, which cannot account for changes made after travel is booked. TMCs have taken a variety of approaches in this area, including developing in-house products like CWT's proprietary Travel Consolidator and AnalytIQs tools. Amex GBT's Premier Insights platform can accept American Express corporate card data. And some TMCs have enlisted third-party analytics specialists like Prime Numbers Technology and Cornerstone Information Systems, which provide a more data source-agnostic approach. They specialize in agency data but also bring in card and expense data, GDS data and other sources. Cornerstone brings in off-channel bookings through a relationship with Traxo.
On the other end of the data funnel, corporate travel buyers gain access to dynamic reporting with interactive dashboards that constantly track critical key performance indicators against industry benchmarks and budget goals. Travel managers can use scenario modeling with near real-time data to examine savings opportunities based on things like policy, vendor and changes in cabin class. Such tools enable corporates to correct course on the fly rather than waiting for a monthly or quarterly report based on old data.
TMC Startup Partnerships: A New Frontier
TMCs have doubled down on innovation and traveler engagement, and many are looking to startups and other tech innovators, which are emerging at an increasing pace, to expand the TMC value proposition. Mega TMCs have established business units to identify partners and manage the growth of startup alliances. National and regional TMCs are getting in on the game, as well. Several have invested in promising technologies and actively integrate their capabilities.
BCD's relationships with third-party tech providers center around a marketplace platform, dubbed SolutionSource, through which the TMC offers clients access to service provider partners. The marketplace model gives BCD clients flexibility to choose providers without having to take on information security vetting or the risk that comes with investing in a small provider.
Meanwhile, CWT gets involved early with promising tech partners. A deal with startup accelerator Plug and Play gives CWT access to early-stage companies in the travel space. Once CWT decides to work with a startup, a dedicated CWT innovation team shepherds the firm as it develops its offering and tailors it for the managed travel market. CWT clients enter the innovation lab to pick services they'd like to pilot. BCD also incorporates buyer input when fine-tuning a startup.
Amex GBT made a tech partnership splash in November, when it announced a five-year exclusive tie-up with mobile travel booking and concierge startup Lola. Direct partnerships are a major prong of Amex GBT's tech strategy, but the TMC also sometimes looks to advance those initial partnerships by adding proprietary features and integrations specifically designed to serve its own clients.
FCM goes the investment route. It has taken a 10 percent stake in 30SecondstoFly and has incorporated that company's chatbot-based travel booking capability into its own Sam mobile assistant. The company also has acquired a 25 percent stake in Upside, which makes a play for the unmanaged business traveler with perks and loyalty rewards. Whether FCM will integrate those capabilities in its managed offerings remains to be seen.
When serving as a matchmaker between startup partners and corporate clients, TMCs must be careful not to get squeezed out. To avoid it, the TMC must add value that's greater than what a buyer would get from a direct relationship with the startup. TMCs may not be the most unbiased judges of innovation for corporates looking beyond tradition. The TMC does, however, understand what fits well within existing ecosystems and how programs can derive quick benefits.
For buyers looking to architect unique solutions for their travel programs, it likely will pay to look beyond the confines of TMC innovation and it might be as easy as establishing a direct relationship with a given technology provider and exploring customizations. On the other hand, looking for solid innovation that works within an established framework is a low-risk way to improve an existing program.
Mobile Travel Apps: Functionality 411
Edited from a 2018 research report from The Beat: TMC Investment Priorities.
Having a mobile presence is a minimum requirement for travel management companies, and corporate travel agencies have several ways to tick this box for clients. They can build their own, buy, partner or refer for a solution. Most TMCs either have built their own proprietary mobile app or have deployed a white-labeled third-party solution with custom development. This suggests TMCs like to have an element of uniqueness in their mobile offering. Others steer client travelers to a mobile itinerary management app provided and branded by a third party, such as Sabre's TripCase or TripIt, owned by SAP Concur.
TMCs have options for app builders: Mantic Point customizes white-label mobile apps for such TMC clients as Acendas, Direct Travel and Ovation. In the past 18 months, Fox World Travel and Atlas Travel rolled out mobile itinerary apps powered by app builder mTrip, which constructs customized white-label mobile offerings for travel agencies. BCD Travel and American Express Global Business Travel built bespoke applications with Travelport Digital, known as MTT before the global distribution system operator acquired it. GBT has since brought its mobile development in house. CWT in 2012 purchased WorldMate, which remains the originator of some of its proprietary mobile technology.
A couple of Frosch executives co-founded Obex, a startup that provides mobile itinerary management technology for TMCs to support travelers in-trip, whether the travelers transact with the agency or book off-channel. Obex's technology is the foundation for Frosch's own branded mobile app. Not all managed-travel apps can accommodate off-channel segments like Obex does, though third-party apps TripIt and TripCase both will parse and manage emailed travel confirmations, if the traveler will forward them. That can be a big if.
What Can Travel Managers Expect from Mobile?
Basic Features—It's widely accepted that TMC apps will include basic itinerary management. They should house reservation details on past, current and upcoming trips, show flight statuses and push disruption notifications to travelers. A TMC mobile app also should support single sign-on to a client's preferred booking tool and serve as a vehicle to reach agents either via chat, text or click-to-call—and perhaps all of these.
Relevant Messaging—Some TMCs incorporate messaging into their mobile offerings relevant to the location, itinerary and profile of a traveler. For example, FCM calls its Sam mobile app a “24-hour travel assistant“ that pushes messages to travelers with timely and itinerary-relevant prompts: the destination's weather forecast as of the night before departure, prompts for ground transportation, alerts for the appropriate baggage carousel or to consider requesting a visa for an upcoming trip. The chatbot also can address simple questions when typed in natural language. Through Travel and Transport's proprietary mobile offering, meanwhile, travel managers can integrate messaging and configurable notifications that alert the traveler to certain policy details like eating breakfast at the hotel because it is included with the rate or taking the approved ground transportation.
Less Talk, More Action—TMC-provided mobile apps are becoming more transactional, not just informational. Egencia long has offered the ability to book air, car and hotel on its mobile app. CWT plans this year to roll out flight booking capabilities on its small and midsize-oriented offering, MyCWT, using GetThere application programming interfaces and other tech partnerships to enable the native app capability. Like Amex GBT and BCD Travel, CWT already offered hotel bookings in-app. FCM, which holds a 10 percent stake in 30SecondstoFly, integrated the latter's artificial intelligence-powered chatbot Claire into Sam last year to bring in booking capability. Mobile-first TMC TripActions is incorporating profiles, machine learning, all distribution pipes and booking capability into its mobile app; however, it is not yet managing complex, global programs.
What About Non-TMC Apps?
Options outside TMC-provided mobile apps may be limited to programs that have dollars to spend. One option is to work directly with an app builder, similar to how a TMC would customize a third-party app to resell to its corporate clients. Mantic Point and mTrip market directly to corporates, as well as to TMCs, for their mobile tech services. Roadmap, a mobile travel engagement platform that has gained traction with companies like Anthem, Microsoft, Nike and Tommy Hilfiger, works only with corporates. It offers many of the features provided by TMC mobile apps but adds social messaging between traveling colleagues, automates traveler feedback on suppliers, integrates supplier messaging for relevant offers to the traveler, folds in local content for restaurants or downtime recreation and local ground transportation information, including walking maps, public transport and Uber and Lyft integrations. While the advanced features have garnered industry accolades for Roadmap and gained it fans among major buyers, smaller programs have cited the financial investment, as well as the risk of working with a startup, as two factors that ultimately drive them toward TMC apps. What are the benefits? Users cite better adoption and more loyalty from travelers to stay in the program.
CWT Brandon Balcom; DVI President Brian Beard; Edgewell Personal Care head of global travel, fleet and meetings Kelly Christner; Takeda head of global travel, meetings and events, fleet and aviation Michelle De Costa; Troovo CEO Kurt Knackstedt, SAP Concur EVP of travel management company and supplier services Mike Koetting; American Express Global Business Travel VP of marketing and product strategy Evan Konwiser; BCD Travel director of product planning Irina Matz; FINRA corporate travel services manager Carol McDowell; RoomIT by CWT marketing VP Peggy Studer; and Perficient corporate T&E manager Mattie Yallaly advised on this article.